A Chinese Buddhist Temple

Buddhism spread into China in the first century AD during China's Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD - 220 AD). The temple layout in the earlier period of Buddhism in China (from 1st century AD to 4th century) followed its Indian counterpart with a pagoda as its central focus surrounded with halls and towers.

Favored by feudalist rulers, Buddhism gradually reached the height of its development from an exotic to a prevailing countrywide religion in Northern Wei Dynasty (386 - 534) Temple architects began to use sophisticated courtyard complex in their temples and the layout of different buildings employed a systematic arrangement similar to the symmetrical palace structure rather than the early pagoda-centered form. Temples at that time had more courtyards, halls, towers, pavilions and intricate designs and decorations are applied to eaves, roofs, balustrades, gateways and interior ceilings.

Most of the Chinese Buddhist monastery or temple you visit today is fashioned after the imperial palaces and bears very little resemblance to the temples in India or other Buddhist countries. Chinese Buddhist temple takes the layout of traditional Chinese palace architecture, which usually has a group of courtyards and halls set on the north-south axis with side rooms flanked symmetrically on each side.

Mountain Gate (Shan Men) is the entrance or introductory part of the temple, usually followed by a solemn screen wall to prevent a direct peering from outside the temple. This principle can be found in most Chinese courtyard structure as well.

Entering the front hall, one is confronted by four huge images, usually made from wood, two on each side. These are the Four Heavenly Kings or Devas, the Guardians of the Four Directions and the hall is named after them as the 'Si Tien Wang Dian' (Four Heavenly Kings Hall).

Leaving the Heavenly Kings Hall, you enter the second courtyard, the principle part of the temple which includes the Main Buddha Hall and several flanking rooms. The hall is variably named Daxiongbaodian Hall or Hall of XX Buddha according to who are set in it. A common case is the Buddha trinity (the trinity of the three ages) including the Buddha of the Present, Sakyamuni, the Buddha of the Past, Kasyapa (Jiayefo in Chinese Pinyin) and the Buddha of the Future. On the east and west walls of this Great Hall are often arranged the figures of the Eighteen Arhats (Lohas) who are represented as possessing various kinds of supernatural powers.

Behind the Main Buddha Hall is another courtyard with more halls serving as other purposes. A library hall, often a two-storied tower in which Buddhist sutras, scriptures, and books are kept is called Cang Jing Ge (Sutra Keeping Tower or Sutra Hall). It is usually found at the rear part of the courtyard. Living residences or quarters are set at the corner of the rear part for monks and pupils.

Most Buddhist temples follow the layout mentioned above and numbers of gates, halls and courtyards varies according to the size and scale of the temple.

Source: http://www.buddhanet.net/